This Day in Jewish History

1919: Cossacks Start Pogrom in Ukraine, Killing Jews but Sparing Property

Within hours, about 1,500 Jews were dead, because of or despite Symon Petlura, the Ukrainian leader whose role remains controversial to this day.

Khmelnytsky, until 1954 known as Proskurov: A main street.
Wikimedia Commons

February 15, 1919, was the first day of a three-day pogrom in the Ukrainian city of Proskurov, in which some 1,500 Jewish residents of the town were killed.

The murderous attacks, carried out by Cossacks who were instructed to kill as many as possible, at the same time they were told not to touch any valuables, took place against the chaotic background of Ukraine’s civil war, which followed the Russian Revolution and the end of World War I. As has often happened in history, the Jews were caught in the middle, with the various sides projecting onto them the attributes that they most hated in their enemies.

Power vacuums and hatred

In early 1919, Symon Petlura became head of the Directorate of Ukraine, a provisional revolutionary government. Petlura is a controversial character in Jewish history, and there is disagreement as to whether he tried to protect the Jews of his land, or was an active participant in their persecution. (Sholom Schwartzbard, who assassinated him in Paris in 1926, held the latter opinion: He held Petlura personally responsible for the murder of 14 members of his extended family during this period.)

 “Each time authority broke down in the urban centers, nationalist fighters, criminal brigands, and disgruntled mobs took advantage of the power vacuum to loot Jewish property and vent their frustrations on Jewish civilians,” wrote historian Jeffrey Veidlinger, in his 2013 book “In the Shadow of the Shtetl: Small-Town Jewish Life in Soviet Ukraine.”

Everyone had his own reason to hate the Jews. Some blamed them, writes Veidlinger, “for the communist onslaught, some blamed the Jews for the war; some blamed the Jews for the economic collapse, and others blamed the Jews simply for being Jews.”

Proskurov was a city of some 50,000 residents, about half of whom were Jews. In 1921, Elias Heifetz, the American chairman of the All-Ukrainian Relief Committee for the Victims of Pogroms, published a report that detailed the unfolding of the slaughter there.

Symon Petlura became head of the Directorate of Ukraine in early 1919. To this day, there is argument over whether he tried to protect the Jews of his land, or actively participated in their persecution.
Wikimedia Commons

A feeble revolt

Ten days before the the violence broke out, the head of the Zaporog brigade of Cossacks from the Ukrainian Republican Army, named Semosenko, received intelligence that Bolsheviks were planning a revolt against the local government.

Semosenko had recently arrived at a garrison in Proskurov, where his regiment was joined by the so-called Gaidamak Cossacks, and announced that he was in charge of the security of the city, and that he would brook no subversive activity, nor any incitement to pogroms.

Word was transmitted to those planning the Bolshevik action that this would not be a good time for a revolt.

As predicted, early on the morning of February 15, 1919, an uprising was mounted, but it was feeble, and easily put down.

According to Heifetz, the same Semosenko who a few days earlier had forbade attacks on the Jews of Proskurov, now plied the Gaidamak Cossacks with vodka and cognac, and ordered them to exterminate as many Jews as possible, describing them as the eternal enemies of the Ukrainian people. At the same time, he forbade them to touch the Jews' property.

Over the next few hours, Semosenko’s troops murdered some 1,500 Jews (estimates vary) in Proskurov. From there, they went on to nearby Filshtein, where they killed an approximate 600 of the town’s 1,900 Jews, this time without any restrictions on robbery, or rape either.

Proskurov may have been the worst of this wave of pogroms, in terms of numbers. But Veidlinger reports how, in 1922, the Soviet Commissariat of Nationality Affairs counted a total of 1,200 pogroms in total having taken place during the preceding five years, with a little over 100,000 victims killed.

In 1954, the city of Proskurov was renamed Khmelnytsky, in honor of the 300th anniversary of a treaty negotiated by Bohdan Khmelnytsky with Russia. In Ukraine, Khmelnytsky is a national hero, for the revolt he led in the 17th century against the Polish-Lithuanian Commonwealth that then ruled Ukraine.

In the collective Jewish memory, however, he is remembered as the Cossack leader of an earlier series of pogroms that killed tens of thousands of Jews. The descendants of the Gaidamak Cossacks, one of the tribes under Khmelnytsky's leadership, were also among the perpetrators of the Petruskov pogrom.